After months of uncertainty, Colorado casinos are inching closer to reopening their doors to the public.
However, before customers can play the slots or card games again, government and business leaders in the state’s three gaming towns must first obtain a variance (essentially, an exemption) from the state’s “safer-at-home” restrictions. That decision rests with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).
CDPHE spokesman Ian Dickson confirmed to PlayColorado that Gilpin and Teller counties are pursuing the variance process at the state level.
“We will continue to work with counties to figure out that plan,” Dickson said. “(Gaming) is not a statewide activity, so we expect the nexus of action to be at the county level. Counties can also address this through the variance process, which is what Teller and Gilpin counties are already doing.”
The cities of Black Hawk and Central City are in Gilpin County, while Cripple Creek is in Teller County.
Colorado casino variance requirements
According to the CDPHE’s website, counties that want a variance must submit an application certifying they meet the following criteria:
- The county has a low COVID-19 case count.
- The county has a downward trajectory of cases within a 14-day period or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent or total tests within a 14-day period.
Each application must also include a COVID-19 suppression plan approved by:
- Local health agencies.
- Hospitals within each county.
- A majority of county commissioners.
- Support from the sovereign nation, if one is present.
In a variance request submitted by Teller County last month, the CDPHE declined to allow bars and casinos in the county to reopen. But it did OK restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and places of worship to reopen under the stipulation that specific safety requirements are met.
“At this time, bars and casinos are not allowed to open,” the CDPHE letter dated May 22 said in response. “The state of Colorado will be issuing guidance around casinos soon.”
Teller County will likely resubmit its request to open casinos, according to the Denver Post.
In its application, Teller County noted that it had only 16 confirmed COVID-19 cases. It also has a plan to transport patients to Colorado Springs hospitals to make up for its lack of ICU beds.
How to safely reopen Colorado casinos
Since being forced to shut down in mid-March, casinos have worked with the Colorado Gaming Association (CGA) to create a best-practices policy on how to reopen to the public safely.
In terms of what that policy includes, as CGA Executive Director Peggi O’Keefe said in early May, everything is on the table for casinos as they explore possible health and social-distancing strategies.
“Are things spaced out further? Are we skipping a chair between customers? Do we provide gloves and masks to customers? What does all of that look like?” O’Keefe said to PlayColorado in May.
“There’ll be changes, for sure. I don’t know how long those will last, but we want to make sure that everybody feels comfortable when they go back up to the gaming towns. Know that they can have a good time and be safe while doing it.
“Now that variances have been submitted, it’s just a matter of waiting to hear back from CDPHE and the governor’s office,” O’Keefe said on Monday.
No timetable to reopen Colorado casinos
There is still no timetable on when that might happen.
Since restaurants are now open in a limited capacity, there was hope that casinos and bars might soon follow.
At a May 26 news conference, Gov. Jared Polis said it’s up to the counties to recommend reopening plans.
“It’s unlikely to be an overarching statewide issue,” Polis said. “It’ll be when counties are ready and have solid plans in place, that they are able to show that they are using the best science and learning from other areas that have gaming to reopen gaming in their areas.”
According to its website, the CDPHE will consider the following factors when weighing whether to grant variances to casinos and other businesses:
- Employees and contracted workers must be monitored daily for symptoms.
- Those with symptoms must be excluded from the workplace and isolated until fever-free for 72 hours.
- Once other symptoms have improved, and at least 10 days have passed since they became symptomatic.
- Employees must wear face masks at all times while working.
- Signage must appear on doors telling guests who are experiencing COVID-like symptoms not to enter.
All plans must also include a minimum of six feet distancing between participants and require face coverings.
Economic blow to Colorado casinos
The state’s gaming towns have suffered a devastating economic blow after casinos there were ordered to shutter by Gov. Polis on March 17.
Cary Walker, a senior financial analyst for the public accounting firm RubinBrown, estimated in late May that Colorado casinos have lost $100 million in revenue through the end of April. And that was a “conservative” projection, he said.
Over that same time span, the state has likely lost $17 million in taxes.
“Overnight, we were really turned into a ghost town,” said Paul Harris, finance director for the city of Cripple Creek, at the Colorado Limited Gaming Control Commission meeting in late May.